Workaholism Should not be a Badge of Honour

January 11, 2016

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Have you ever been a part of a conversation like the following:

Person A: “I’m so busy with work lately!  I don’t think I left the office before 7pm all week.”

Person B: “Oh same here, I must have been doing 60 hour weeks for the past month!”

Person C: “Tell me about it!  I can’t remember the last time I actually had a weekend.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because we live in a society in which we often try to prove our worth and importance by bragging about how much we’ve worked.  While it is commendable to work hard, and give 100%, there is a limit to how much most people can give to their jobs. In fact, having too much on one’s plate can be detrimental to their well-being.

What is Workaholism?

Workaholism is a colloquial term used to describe people who spend a great deal of time working, and can be traced back as far as 1947[i] and was officially coined in 1971[ii]. While it is not clearly defined in the literature in the same was as alcoholism, it is a term often used, along with Work Addiction, in the psychological research concerning addiction-like behaviours surrounding work. Workaholism (or Work Addiction) refers to the unhealthy behavior of people who feel a compulsion to work as opposed to those who spend a great deal working because of the enjoyment derived from it[iii]. Aziz and Zickar added to this definition by defining Workaholics as being high in work involvement and the drive to work, but low in  work enjoyment, contrasted with “Work Enthusiasts” who are high in both work involvement and enjoyment, but do not experience the same level of drive to work[iv].

What is the impact of Workaholism and excessive work?

The biggest impact of workaholism is on the health and well-being of the workaholic. In a study by Shaufeli, Taris and Rhenen[v], drive was found to be highly correlated with negative health outcomes such as anxiety, psychosomatic complaints, and exhaustion. More surprisingly it was found that those with high drive to work experienced less job satisfaction. Workaholism has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. This relationship can be mediated by active coping, which can even lead to positive health outcomes[vi]. However, it can also be mediated through emotional discharge, such as excessive complaining, however this can will instead lead to ill health. In addition to personal well-being, workaholism has been associated with greater work-family conflict.  This is in part due to the increased stress, as well as the extra stress placed on these relationships because of the extra time being invested into work[vii].

The relationship between workaholism and work outcomes is less direct. While workaholics are often more driven and invested, leading to greater productivity initially, the negative health outcomes can lead to reduced performance overtime.  The exhaustion component of burnout is a significant predictor  of in-role performance, which exhausted employees performing more poorly then their healthy colleagues[viii] .  For this reason, it is important to maintain reasonable workloads.

What are you working so hard for?

Unpacking the impact of excessive work on mental health is more complicated than a simple correlation.  Some research has found the exact opposite relationship between time spent working and measure of well-being as might be expected, with employees reporting the highest number of hours worked also claiming the best mental well-being (McMillan & O’Driscoll, 2004)[ix]. Moreover, their physical well-being was comparable to that of people who did not work excessively.  The key mediating factor appears to be the level of enjoyment people experience in their work, as people with the higher enjoyment of work appear to have better physical well-being, and experience less symptoms of stress like low energy, aches and pains, and insomnia. All this suggests that working long, hard hours isn’t bad for you- as long as you are enjoying the work.  People working overtime for extrinsic reasons like money, promotions, or because it’s part of the culture, are still going to experience increased stress and all it’s associated symptoms. Additionally, research suggests that nonwork  behaviours such as taking part in leisure activities can help workers recover from the demands of work and return fully engaged[x]

The most important thing to keep in mind, as either an employer or an employee is to ensure that people are getting as much enjoyment and satisfaction as possible from work, and that they are not becoming overwhelmed.  Unplugging, disconnecting, and taking some time for youself when you leave work is actually good for you AND your job!

[i]  “workaholic, n. and adj.” in Oxford English Dictionary Third Edition.

[ii] Oates, W. E. (1971). Confessions of a workaholic: The facts about work addiction. World Publishing Company.

[iii] Robinson, B. E. (1999). The Work Addiction Risk Test: Development of a tentative measure of workaholism. Perceptual and motor skills88(1), 199-210.

[iv] Aziz, S., & Zickar, M. J. (2006). A cluster analysis investigation of workaholism as a syndrome. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology11(1), 52.

[v] Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Van Rhenen, W. (2008). Workaholism, burnout, and work engagement: three of a kind or three different kinds of employee well‐being?. Applied Psychology57(2), 173-203.

[vi] Shimazu, A., Schaufeli, W. B., & Taris, T. W. (2010). How does workaholism affect worker health and performance? The mediating role of coping.International journal of behavioral medicine17(2), 154-160.

[vii] Brady, B. R., Vodanovich, S. J., & Rotunda, R. (2008). The impact of workaholism on work-family conflict, job satisfaction, and perception of leisure activities. The Psychologist-Manager Journal11(2), 241-263.

[viii] Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Verbeke, W. (2004). Using the job demands‐resources model to predict burnout and performance. Human Resource Management43(1), 83-104.

[ix] McMillan, L. H., & O’Driscoll, M. P. (2004). Workaholism and health: Implications for organizations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 17(5), 509-519.

[x] Sonnentag, S. (2003). Recovery, work engagement, and proactive behavior: a new look at the interface between nonwork and work. Journal of Applied Psychology88(3), 518.

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